Movie review: Anthropoid
Sean Ellis’s Second World War thriller about the real-life assassination attempt on Nazi henchman Reinhard Heydrich adopts a slightly random, and disarmingly intimate approach to both heroism and history
Starring: Jamie Dornan, Cillian Murphy, Brian Caspe, Toby Jones, Anna Gieslerova, Charlotte Le Bon
Directed by: Sean Ellis
Running time: 2hrs
MPAA Rating: Restricted
By Katherine Monk
Reinhard Heydrich was so cold, even Hitler referred to him as “the man with the iron heart.” Chief architect of the Holocaust, tyrannical force behind the Gestapo and fan of public executions, Heydrich was in charge of suppressing resistance fighters and created a culture of paranoia that eroded trust, destroyed friendships and families, and allowed the Nazis to seize control of Europe.
Villains don’t come any better, or any worse, so when we learn he’s the target of a secret assassination plot hatched by exiled Czech soldiers, we’re completely onside. We want Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) and Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) to succeed in their mission, and thanks to a half-century of American-styled war movies, we’re well trained in stories of self-sacrificing heroes who overcome obstacles to save the day.
As a result, when Anthropoid opens with low-contrast shots of parachutists landing in snow-covered trees, we get a sense of where director Sean Ellis is taking us.
With no special effects, a seamless period design steeped in rusts and dusty neutrals, and two handsome leads on a secret mission, the first act of Anthropoid is enough to conjure warm memories of a weekend matinee.
We feel a surging sense of noble purpose as we root for the good guys to take out the bad, but also a shiver of guilt – knowing we’d all rather survive another day than face the firing squad.
Director Sean Ellis (Metro Manila) seizes this squirming feeling and lets it define the whole piece because it’s here, in that reluctant sense of rightness, that heroism truly lives.
If Gabcik and Kubis weren’t terrified at the prospect of shooting Heydrich in the open streets of Prague, their task might be daunting, but it wouldn’t register as real. The whole thing would have felt like an episode of Mission: Impossible with a hint of Hogan’s Heroes.
Ellis isn’t interested in affirming empty propaganda or ponying up at the genre tollbooth. The film does not contain standard set pieces featuring manly bonding among brothers in arms, or any grandiose political speeches about the nature of personal freedom.
Hiding out in occupied Prague, Kubis and Gabcik are essentially cut off from the higher powers and are forced to internalize the war as individuals, and individuals are complicated and conflicted. They don’t behave in uniform fashion, even if they wear the same stripes.
Ellis plays with this, showing us the profound differences between his two heroes. Gabcik (Murphy) is older, pragmatic, and willfully numb to the pain that is war. Kubis is younger and far more romantic. He is a dutiful soldier, but he’d rather not die – as if there was a choice.
War doesn’t really give people choices. Free will feels like a bourgeois concept when you’re trying to survive, and Ellis gets all that, pushing his two leads into corners that don’t always lead to flattering, inspirational actions.
For fans of typical war movies with waving flags and sun-drenched stars and stripes, Anthropoid will feel horribly foreign with its wishy-washy characters and unfocused plot. Ellis never gives us all the information. We don’t see shots of mustachioed generals at HQ telling us Heydrich has to be eliminated. All we get are random secret messages delivered through the remnants of the resistance, lead by Uncle Hajsky (Toby Jones), another perfectly atypical war movie denizen.
The result is a movie that never truly resolves into a well-focused whole. We only get bits and pieces, just like Kubis and Gabcik – as they struggle to find their own purpose, and a sense of personal meaning, in the chaos of conflict.
Even the assassination attempt feels strangely arbitrary, despite being the raison d’etre behind the film: The movie gets its title from the mission name “Anthropoid.”
The whole thing has a strange, contained feeling that works against the grand tableaux of war movie clichés – a deeply personal, small-scale approach that makes it a miniature in the world of battlefield art.
Without the larger socio-historical framework, and all its lavish carvings and gilt, Anthropoid looks a little ordinary by comparison – perhaps even boring. But it’s the ordinariness that proves the most remarkable, because in the end, we’re all ordinary. It’s history that decides the hero.
THE EX-PRESS, August 23, 2016